Rachel Read, Staff Writer
JSU welcomed Ms. Kathleen Parker, Pulitzer Prize winner and columnist for the Washington Post as the designated lecturer for the annual Ayers Lecture Series, held on the 11th floor of the Houston Cole Library on March 2.
Dr. William T. Fielding, the Dean of the School of Business and Industry, gave the opening speech, and Mr. Brandt Ayers, the Chairman and Publisher of The Anniston Star introduced Parker.
The lecture, entitled “Free Speech in the Era of Fake News,” was a timely message to the room of budding journalists and journalism enthusiasts alike.
Parker donned a hot pink jacket, her signature red glasses, a lucent smile and a disarming energy for the lecture.
Parker reflected fondly on her years as a writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.
“My greatest newspaper experience,” said Parker of her time at the Birmingham Post-Herald, “the reason it was so great here, is because Alabama is absolutely crazy — it’s the best story place I’ve ever known.”
Parker, who currently resides in Washington D.C., has written for six different newspapers in her 40-year career.
The speech played to Parker’s dry wit and humor and included a healthy serving of political jokes, such as, “‘Free Speech in the Era of Fake News’—which is a metaphor for Donald Trump.”
Despite the jokes, Parker made it clear that her speech was not going to be a critique of President Trump, but that bringing up Trump would be inevitable when giving a speech of this nature.
Parker highlighted the importance of the relationship that the press has with the White House and stressed that the treatment of the media as an “enemy” is not fair or right.
“There seems to be a lack of understanding in the general population of the importance of the media and independent press and the First Amendment,” Parker said. “It’s an absurd notion that [the media is] the enemy.”
Parker also admitted that there is a very real reason the media’s reputation and credibility has sunk in the eyes of the general public. Parker shared her own story of being used as a prop for the niche of “Southern white woman” by the media in the past, and the disconnect between “every-day Americans” and the media.
“I began to feel like Jane Goodall. I was being summoned from the hinterlands to explain the behaviors of the indigenous people. I actually lived among them, I understood their ways,” Parker joked of her being called in to explain the views of southerners.
“We have work to do,” Parker continued. “We have work to do in winning back the trust of you.”
Parker also explained why click-bait online news articles are poison to the reputation of the media.
“When we need to get digital, online traffic, how do you do that? You write sensational headlines, you call it click-bait,” Parker said, emphasizing that this new trend is not good for journalism, or readership trust. “We [are having] to compete with other media — each generation it becomes less and less ethically bound.”
Parker also described the frustrations of dealing with editors and disingenuous headlines that are engineered to generate traffic.
“The newspaper industry has to decide that we’re just not going to encourage that — very few newspaper editors are that brave,” she said.
“‘The way to right wrongs is to shine light of the truth upon them,’” Parker said, quoting legendary African-American journalist Ida B. Wells. “People do need to remember what journalism is all about and what we actually do.”
On another serious note, Parker expressed her desire for President Trump to make amends with the media as a means of creating a more peaceful atmosphere to recover from the hate and negative tension that politics has created in the United States.
“I don’t know if that’s going to happen,” Parker admitted, “but it’s the right thing to do, and it needs to happen before somebody decides taking out a member of the media is a heroic act.”
Parker has firsthand experience with hostility toward the media. Recently, she received a a death threat recently that taunted, “‘Why don’t you walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, so the White House can enjoy watching your demise?’”
“So I don’t wear my red glasses in Washington anymore,” Parker laughed, “and I’m selling my house and moving into an apartment.”
“That is where we are,” she added solemnly. “I have a target on my back because I am a journalist.”
Another point Parker made was the importance of media literacy in general education.
“We need to explore greater media literacy — news literacy — in this country,” Parker said and acknowledged JSU’s course offerings in media literacy as a wonderful thing. “That is the most important course we can teach students today.”
“More than ever, we’re going to have to learn whether it’s news or whether it’s propaganda,” Parker said, expressing her fear that the White House is becoming more and more propaganda-based. “Corrective measures equal accountability—and where there’s no accountability, we can just make things up, or characterize things according to one’s confirmation bias,” Parker said. “We call that propaganda. And that’s what scares me.”
The News Literacy Project, a curricula for students at the elementary level and up, is designed to aid in helping students learn how to discern what news sources are real news, what is fake and what is propaganda.
On her closing point, Parker offered a suggestion: “I would like for people in this room to think of subscribing to a newspaper if you do not. If you want news that is reliable, you have to pay people to do the job, and you cannot do that without subscribers.”
“As a bonus,” Parker mused, “I don’t know what sort of pets you have, but I have twenty-eight finches, four canaries and two parakeets, and the newspaper page is the perfect fit.”
Fielding gave the closing comments, followed by a thought provoking question and answer session, in which Parker shed some light on various questions from the audience, including how to launch a career as an investigative journalist.
“Start local, every community has stories,” Parker said. “In a small paper, you get to do the big stories. I got so much more exposure [at the Birmingham Post-Herald] and so much more good experience than I would have had I been at The Washington Post or some other large paper.”
Other items on Parker’s list of tips for success included: read great literature, travel, learn another language and don’t work for free.